To appear in PUBLIC VOICES
They found that the Lodge itself was intact but the ground around the structure was in turmoil. There were so many objects poking out of the ground that they thought that the area had been used as some sort of a cemetery. The faculty members contacted colleagues from the archeology department and asked them to visit the area to make sure that professionals were involved in exploring these ruins.
The archeologists’ dig uncovered graves of pets, remnants of garbage, and what seemed to be a sealed time capsule. The faculty group opened the capsule carefully and discovered a stack of papers inside as well as a newspaper. They found an agenda for a conference titled Minnowbrook at 50 that was attended by approximately 50 people.
According to the newspaper that was included in the capsule the conference took place in a very turbulent time in U.S. history. There seemed to be a concern that a leader was in place who was challenging many of the principles in the US political and administrative system. As they examined the papers they discovered that the conference was the fourth in a series of conferences organized by the Maxwell School in Syracuse – the public administration school. First held in 1968, the 2018 meeting (like its predecessors) brought scholars in public administration and management together to discuss the state of the field and its future.
The bulk of the papers in the capsule seemed to be quite short (usually about 3 or 4 pages long). They were written by the attendees at the conference before the meeting was held and were defined as “concept papers” that discussed a critical issue or topic that was important to both the participant and to the field.
One of the archeologists in the group was fascinated by this array of papers. He was interested in the historical development of academic fields and looked for ruins of both universities and libraries for evidence of patterns in the way that academic programs were conceptualized. These papers, by contrast, allowed him to move beyond the ruins of buildings and to use the papers to glimpse both the status and uncertainties contained in an important intellectual field.
Because the authorship of the papers was identifiable, it was possible for the archeologist to make some generalizations about the participants. He noted that it seemed that 50% of the paper writers were men and 50% were women. He couldn’t determine the nationality or race of many of the authors but did note that a few people had Middle Eastern names and a few had Hispanic names. He did not find anyone among the authors with an Asian name. Other names suggested European family backgrounds.
After he read and reread the papers more than five times, he emerged with a picture of the field of public administration in 2018. He was able to produce a document that listed his observations about the papers. As he wrote, he found that the observations were similar to what he thought were the assumptions of the current people in that field in 2068.
Here is his list:
1. Participants in the conference did not appear to share similar views of problems, opportunities, and constraints. It was clear that the group was not able to describe the field as a unified intellectual enterprise with agreement on its parameters or values. In fact, it seemed that the intellectual divisions within the field kept participants from developing shared agendas.
2. The cast of characters in the field (both the players and leaders) included a number of people representing institutions, individual views, politicians, professionals, experts and citizens. But it was not clear who played leadership roles in the field or even whether all those listed were considered to be appropriate players.
3. The issues that were discussed in the papers often relied on past meetings and discussions. There was a sense of nostalgia about the past but a feeling of fear about the future. One could see that the participants were overwhelmed by the current set of pressures in the US at that time.
4. A significant number of the papers were concerned about issues of equity and diversity facing individuals in the field. It seemed that some of the participants believed that there had been some progress over the years but still continued to highlight disparities. It appeared that these issues had been raised at earlier conferences but it was not clear whether much progress had been made in the field since then. Others did not focus on equity values but highlighted efficiency norms, often relying on private sector (rather than public) approaches.
5. Some of the participants described the public administration field through analytic approaches that provided a sense of neutrality. Several defined their expectations through reliance on data. Others commented on the general benefits of technology.
6. It was difficult to get a sense of the causes of the problems that were facing the field and the society at large. Some participants seemed to fear politics and sought ways to avoid it. Others highlighted the role of citizens in the public administration sphere.
7. Although a few of the papers were written by practitioners of public administration (bureaucrats or relevant non-government organizations), the relationship between academics and practitioners was not clear. Was the purpose of the meeting to develop ways to warn decisionmakers about issues or to help them deal with them?
The archeologist had tried to find other information about the three previous Minnowbrook conferences but the on-line sources did not provide him with relevant information. Were the other conferences successful? And he wondered what had happened in the public administration field in the past 50 years? He was intrigued about its development. Perhaps he would find another time capsule that would help him understand this important field of study.